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Originally published Monday, January 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Weasel-like fisher back in state after many decades

Wildlife officials released six females and five males in Olympic National Park, and will monitor them via tracking devices.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fisher facts

They belong to the same animal family as badgers, mink and otters.

They are found only in North America.

They spend most of their time on the ground but can climb trees, and hop from one tree to another.

They live about 10 years.

They are one of the few animals that kill and eat porcupine.

They have beautiful brown coats, black legs and tail. Pelts were second only to the sea otter's in value until trapping was banned in 1934.

When upset, they will hiss and growl.

Females are pregnant most of the time.

Sources: Woodland Park Zoo, Olympic National Park

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — In a flash of brown fur, three fishers bolted from their wooden carrying cases and streaked into the wilderness — just as everyone hoped.

It was a homecoming of sorts for animals believed to be extinct in Washington for more than 80 years, and reintroduced without a hitch to Olympic National Park on Sunday by state and federal wildlife biologists.

A total of 11 fishers were released in three locations at the park, the first of 100 animals expected to be trapped in British Columbia and released in the park over three years, to re-establish a population of the predators at Olympic.

Fishers, native to Washington, have not been known to exist anywhere in the state for generations, because of overtrapping in the 1800s and early 1900s and the loss of old-growth forests. Fishers den in cavities of logs, and rest and lounge in the broad limbs of big old trees.

Olympic National Park, with just the forest habitat fishers require, and plenty of small mammals to eat, emerged through years of study by biologists as the best place to bring the animals back to Washington.

Sharp-toothed predators related to martens, polecats and minks, fishers are a weasel-like animal about the size of a house cat. They hunt squirrels, snowshoe hares, mice and other small mammals but will even take birds, and elongate themselves to root prey out of burrows.

But fish? The fishers' name, according to Wikipedia, is believed to come not from their diet, but from early French fur trappers, who used the word "fichet," which means the pelt of the European polecat.

Some of the fishers released Sunday were backpacked into the wilderness, while others were released from boxes brought in by pickup. All of the animals were captured by trappers paid $500 for each fisher turned in for relocation.

The fishers had been in Williams Lake, B.C., living for the past month at a dog-training and boarding facility — but not with the dogs — and feasting on beaver and deer meat. They had a double portion of venison before their release Sunday, and looked sleek, healthy and ready for the big day, said biologist Jeffrey Lewis, who headed up the reintroduction effort for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Six females and five males were released, fitted with radio collars or implanted with chips so biologists can track the animals over the next several years to see where they go and how they fare.

About 35 other fisher transfers have been done across the country. Biologists are optimistic this relocation effort will succeed, as have those in other states, including Oregon and Montana.

"My guess is they are already several hundred yards away," said biologist Kurt Jenkins, of the U.S. Geological Survey, as he listened for the steady beep ... beep ... beep of the fishers' tracking devices on his radio.

With the arrival of the fishers, Olympic National Park is within one species of once again being home to the full range of vertebrate species that once lived there; only the gray wolf, long extinct in Washington, is missing.

Patti Happe, chief of the wildlife branch at Olympic, said there is something special about taking one more step toward making the park whole as an ecosystem. "The park-service mission is to restore as best we can a naturally functioning ecosystem for future generations."

That's how an adult would say it. But perhaps the kids from Stevens Middle School in Port Angeles, along to help out with the release, said it best when the fishers zoomed out of their boxes.

"Cool!" and "Wow!" was how they put it as, with a scritch and scramble of their claws, the fishers bolted for freedom.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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